Elementary My Dear Lawyer

When “dear” is an opinion on pricing held by the 80% of society who do not use a lawyer to solve a legal problem, then we have a challenge and an opportunity. Both are big, as is the gap between what clients think they can afford to pay, and what lawyers think they need to charge to be profitable.

Around 25 years ago, Apple was advised that Librarians, Journalists and Lawyers would be the biggest users of IT. Because their raw materials were digitised, and their output could be delivered in electronic form, it was thought that Librarians, Journalists and Lawyers would/should be willing participants in the highly anticipated Tech “Revolution”. Our view of a revolution in those days was, to say the least, limited. It often just meant more efficient billing and word processing, or less paper without concern for the strategic business implications.

In those pre-internet days, disruption was not a fashionable term. However, a concept called the “Electronic Noose” demonstrated disruption when the medical supply business American Hospitals, nearly put Johnson & Johnson’s hospital distribution division out of business by giving terminals to US hospital procurement officers. Not only did it reduce delay with orders, and cut out layers of distribution, but it forced competitors to supply their products via the terminals. American Hospitals “owned” the client. Some lawyers noted this concept, the implementation of which was made much easier with the arrival of the Internet.

Another pearl of the bleeding obvious, but widely unheeded wisdom from the late 1980’s Apple-world, was that “for computers to be useful, they needed to be useable.” Over the years I have seen many examples of individuals who have partnered with computers to form a very capable team. This was founded on a wise selection of tools, together with a considerable amount of self-investment in their use. Some examples include:

  • A young lawyer who used her own Filemaker database of project materials to be able to quickly answer all the questions in client meetings. Her firm was awarded the contract to work on a new power station, provided she relocated interstate to work on the project.
  • A senior and junior barrister who complained incessantly about their sole opponent who rather unfairly used his Mac, and Filemaker, to outperform them in court on a daily basis. I daren’t point out that for the cost of their daily fee, they too could have been similiarly equipped.
  • The Managing Partner of a mid-sized firm who used OneNote to enhance his capabilities to a level way beyond his colleagues.
  • A senior lecturer at a University who uses his own database to dramatically improve his capabilities, I.e. mark assignments in a fraction of the time others take; to interact with his students on a personal level, such as by finding all those who have missed 2 lectures and giving each a person a warning of the fatal consequences of missing a third consecutive lecture; and to analyse the queries he is getting and rank them so as to address the issues in his next lecture. Rather than share with others his secret, he prefers to let his colleagues believe in his magical powers.

Such tech whizzes acquired their skills over the last 30 years. You can’t clone them. However, their ability to interact with the machine is now easier to replicate.

At their most basic, the above examples showed, how people could augment their own memories with digital depositories. As one of my law lecturers had pointed out to a student, he was in possession of a most marvelous computer residing between his ears. However, in his case, he simply had trouble accessing it.

We can all be concerned about grey matter access issues. So once again, Apple looks like it will come to the rescue. Recently, in a busy week it bought 2 companies in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning fields. One was called Perceptio, which “focuses on image-based recognition and deep learning”. The other was Vocal IQ which is attempting to create a more advanced type of virtual assistant which could be used to make Siri more useful/serious. Where Apple is headed is to further democratise the access to data on computers.

IBM’s Watson is another pathway to empowering lawyers. Thomson Reuters have recently teamed up with IBM, presumably to make greater use of the publishers content via Watson.

Be warned, not only could lawyers benefit, but they could set up Digital Guardian Angels to help clients. Could a new legal Siri monitor a client’s iPhone call and say “I’m sorry [clientname], I’m afraid you can’t do that”?

The transformative effect of these recent developments will be the icing on the cake of a ton of apps in the process of turning the business of law up-side down.

I have now concluded that the disruption to law will be far, far greater than I envisaged, as I did not foresee the creativity now being applied by hacker lawyers solving all sorts of problems for clients.

With such tools, the 80% Latent Legal Market is up for grabs. It will enable lawyers to profitably provide considerably more affordable services. Unlike many industries affected by tech, it has potential to be very positive. By unlocking the 80% Latent Legal Market, there is the potential for considerable job creation rather than job loss. AI and expert systems will go a long way to address the great challenge of the value perception divide between client and lawyer.

While enabling lawyers to tap into this market, it probably won’t be evenly distributed. Pioneers will claim the market. Like the artisan village craftsmen, there is a risk that the number of local solo general practitioners will wither. Solos in the future will need to be very good and very different as the industrialisation of law will crush them if they are not at least part of a network with access to the magic tools that are now emerging.

Competition will be bending all the rules to evoke a “how did they do that, for the price“ response.

They might justify their approach by pointing out that some key rules have been ignored for decades. For example, Rule 1 of the US Federal Rules of Civil Procedure advocates: “Just, speedy and inexpensive determination”. Yet clients have been told that they could only have two of those elements, but not all three, and not only in court, but for any legal service.

If NewLaw’s efforts succeed in preventing problems arising, the #DoLessLaw will sound less like it is just cutting corners. There will be fewer trench warfare and more “keyhole surgery” type of cases. New approaches such as the Enright Method for disputes, or new empowering platforms such Ethereum, could make law more “elementary” and easier to automate.

Hopefully, the real Revolution takes off so tech-augmented lawyers – like doctors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have more time to indulge in their passions. Gabriel Garcia Marquez claimed that if he had had word processing 20 years earlier, he would have published two or three times more books.

As fascinating as law can be, judgments seem like a waste of analytical and literary skills when we could be seeing more like this:

Arthur Phillip – Sailor, Mercenary, Governor, Spy

And if we can crack the Latent Legal Market challenge, we can afford to have more time to enjoy them.

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